Do you really have to kiss up to clients?

A big part of being on the agency or consultant side of our business is building and managing the client relationship. Your job is to establish rapport and trust with clients. You want them to see you as a partner. 

However, in some instances, this “relationship building” can cross over into “kissing up” territory pretty quickly. 

What am I talking about? Oh, don’t pretend you’re not guilty. 

What about that time you told the client “great work” even though it clearly wasn’t their best effort? 

Or that time you elbowed your way through the group so you could sit directly beside the client—then proceeded to laugh at every one of her jokes (and some of them weren’t funny)? Or that over-the-top positive email you sent to the client after what was obviously a fairly painful brainstorming meeting? 

I think most of us have been guilty at one point or another in our professional lives. I know I have, but do we really have to go down this road? 

Does relationship building equate to kissing up in our line of work? 

Having been at this for almost 20 years now, I’d say no. Here’s my thinking: 

Relationship building and management are definitely part of the job—but that should always manifest itself as trust, not flattery. Some of the best relationship building you can do has nothing to do with the relationship itself (at least in the way you’re probably thinking about it). It has to do with your work. 

  • Do great work and deliver on time, and your client will love you.
  • Make your client look great in front of her boss, and your client will love you.
  • Win awards for your client and her organization, and the client will love you. 

This is how professional relationships are built—on a foundation of hard work and results. 

Now, is there a little relationship management built into that? Absolutely, but I would argue it doesn’t have to translate into toadying. 

Relationships are a two-way street, right? So, as much as you want to get to know your client, shouldn’t your client want to get to know you, too? You’re more likely spending more time with this person than you are with your family. Make it count. 

In any relationship, you’re looking to build trust based on genuine concern, empathy, and interest. So, look for opportunities to show concern, lend and ear, or ask about a hobby or interest outside of work. 

Here are a few ways this comes to life for me. 

Whenever I talk on the phone or in person with a client, I try to ask about a few personal things right off the bat. How was your vacation? How are the kids? How is Scotty’s soccer coming along? These kinds of things. Why is this important? Because these are the things everyone wants to talk about. If you ask me about my kids, I’ll embark on a 15-minute monologue about my son’s basketball game or my daughter’s American Girl doll fixation. People love to talk about themselves; all you usually have to do is give them the opportunity and then show genuine interest. Not too tough. This is definitely not kissing up. 

I also look for opportunities to send a note in times of joy or sadness in my client’s life. Thanks to things like Facebook and Twitter, this is much easier now. I’m thinking about things like birthdays, illnesses, and moving into a new home. A short note during any of these events will go a long way. A handwritten note—even better. Again, show empathy and concern. This is not kissing up. 

Finally, if I know my client plays golf, for example, I might try to get him out on the course. Golf is a hobby (and passion) of mine, so when I see others play, I jump at the chance to connect on that level. Other areas where I’ll do the same: beer (geeky beer, at least), and Kansas Jayhawk basketball (or Gopher b-ball, for that matter). 

There’s something about getting together with your client or colleague during non-work hours doing something you both enjoy. I think that connects you a bit more—and it usually leads to a stronger relationship. Again, I don’t see this as kissing up—I see it as doing something you both love to do. 

So, do you really need to kiss up to clients? What do you think? 


Arik Hanson is principal of ACH Communications. The first version of this story originally appeared on his blog, Communications Conversations.

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